Peace in the Philippines

Philippine peace

A young resident of the village of Bulit and her grandmother look on as CRS staff and partners visit the community of about 2,500 people in the Kotabato Province of Mindanao. Photo by David Snyder/CRS

Just finishing up a few days out in Central Mindanao with CRS, visiting with some of the people who have gone through their peacebuilding trainings out there. Many outside of the Philippines perhaps don’t understand just how much conflict the Central and Western parts of the island have seen in recent years, as Christians clash with Islamic and non-Islamic indigenous groups. It’s a conflict dating back to the late 1960’s, but flare -ups of violence, particularly in 2003 and 2008 most recently, have often been brutal.

Philippine stand

A small roadside stand in the village of Bulit, in the Kotabato Provice of Mindanao. Photo by David Snyder/CRS

Into that backdrop CRS stepped in 1996 to begin trying to build bridges to peace. I have to be honest and say peacebuilding, in my experience, is often not a very successful venture for many aid agencies. Old prejudices die hard, and old wounds are slow to heal. I’ve seen many such projects fall completely apart at the drop of a hat in other places in the world.

Recognizing that no change would come overnight, CRS had done the right thing and approached the process here at two different levels. One, in 2000 they founded the Mindanao Peace Institute, along with some partner agencies, to provide basically a college type learning environment for people in the region interested in studying peacebuilding. They teach courses – modules, they call them – on subjects like conflict reconciliation and inter-cultural dialogue, and target leaders like clergy or other community leaders. In 2005, military officers also began attending the courses.

Second, CRS launched what is called the Grassroots Peace Learning Center. It is what it sounds like – basically, a more grassroots oriented training center with the same focus as the Mindanao Peace Institute. Through GPLC, as it’s called, CRS works with community leaders at the village level, and on the ground where these conflicts are most likely to flare up.

What I enjoyed most about the last few days was listening to the stories of those who have taken part in these courses. They know first hand what this conflict has done here, and if there is one great advantage that this program has over any others I’ve seen in the world it’s that those in it really truly understand the need to address conflict where it starts. They’ve seen what happens, time and time again, when you don’t—or worse, when outside influences use cultural and religious differences to exploit people for their own gain. The participants I talked to are not all starry-eyed idealists—they know things are fragile. But they are willing to work with each other, and talk to each other, and that is the first step in any reconciliation.

David Snyder is a free-lance photojournalist who’s traveled to more than 30 countries for CRS

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